By the late 19th century, American cities like Chicago and New York were marvels of the industrializing world. The shock urbanization of the previous quarter century, however, brought on a host of environmental problems. Skies were acrid with coal smoke, and streams ran fetid with raw sewage. Disease outbreaks were as common as parks and green space was rare. In response to these hazards, particular groups of urban residents responded to them with a series of activist movements to reform public and private policies and practices, from the 1890s until the end of the 20th century. Those environmental burdens were never felt equally, with the working class, poor, immigrants, and minorities bearing an overwhelming share of the city’s toxic load. By the 1930s, many of the Progressive era reform efforts were finally bearing fruit. Air pollution was regulated, access to clean water improved, and even America’s smallest cities built robust networks of urban parks. But despite this invigoration of the public sphere, after World War II, for many the solution to the challenges of a dense modern city was a private choice: suburbanization. Rather than continue to work to reform and reimagine the city, they chose to leave it, retreating to the verdant (and pollution free) greenfields at the city’s edge. These moves, encouraged and subsidized by local and federal policies, provided healthier environments for the mostly white, middle-class suburbanites, but created a new set of environmental problems for the poor, working-class, and minority residents they left behind. Drained of resources and capital, cities struggled to maintain aging infrastructure and regulate remaining industry and then exacerbated problems with destructive urban renewal and highway construction projects. These remaining urban residents responded with a dynamic series of activist movements that emerged out of the social and community activism of the 1960s and presaged the contemporary environmental justice movement.
Robert R. Gioielli
Sara C. Fingal
Since the 1960s, Latinxs have played prominent roles in the environmental justice movement and in organizations that have defined their members as Hispanic or Latinx environmentalists. Organizers created their own groups in response to their alienation from predominantly white mainstream environmental movements that focused on wilderness preservation and government conservation policies. Latinx community activists, on the other hand, related social justice and grassroots democracy to struggles over public parks and beaches, clean air, clean water, pesticide exposure, and high environmental risks. In the late 1960s and 1970s, organizations like the United Farm Workers (UFW) consciously connected worker safety to environmentalist and consumer concerns about unregulated pesticides, but the majority of environmental groups ignored issues that affected Latinx communities. Eventually, mainstream environmentalists and federal government agencies responded to calls for diversity with increased attention to environmental justice for communities of color in the late 20th century. In recent years, the National Park Service and the US Forest Service have attempted to engage Latinxs through American Hispanic heritage projects and Spanish-language advertising. Previous calls for environmental justice and the youth of the US Latinx population have made many mainstream environmental organizations aware of the need to engage with people of color, although persistent stereotypes about Latinx disinterest in access to public lands and conservation still linger. Newer organizations have worked to engage community members, young people, and departments in the federal government. Latinxs have been and will continue to be critical actors in conversations about local and global environmental issues. Recognition of an existing environmental ethic among Latinx and Spanish-speaking people in the United States would expand the understanding of conservation and environmentalism in American history.
Brian J. McCammack
Urban areas have been the main source of pollution for centuries. The United States is no exception to this more general rule. Pollution of air, water, and soil only multiplied as cities grew in size and complexity; people generated ever more domestic waste and industry continually generated new unwanted byproducts. Periods of pollution intensification—most notably those spurts that came with late 19th-century urban industrialization and the rapid technological innovation and consumer culture of the post-World War II era—spurred social movements and scientific research on the problem, mostly as it pertained to adverse impacts on human health. Technological innovations aimed to eliminate unwanted wastes and more stringent regulations followed. Those technological and political solutions largely failed to keep pace with the increasing volume and diversity of pollutants industrial capitalism introduced into the environment, however, and rarely stopped pollution at its root cause. Instead, they often merely moved pollutants from one “sink”—a repository of pollution—to another (from water to land, for instance) and/or from one place to another (to a city downstream, for instance, or from one urban neighborhood to another). This “end of pipe” approach remained overwhelmingly predominant even as most pollution mitigation policies became nationalized in the 1970s. Prior to that, municipalities and states were primarily responsible for addressing air, water, and land pollution. During this post-World War II period, policy—driven by ecological science—began to exhibit an understanding of urban pollution’s detrimental effects beyond human health. More broadly, evolving scientific understanding of human health and ecosystemic impacts of pollution, new technology, and changing social relations within growing metropolitan areas shifted the public perception of pollution’s harmful impacts. Scientific understanding of how urban and suburban residents risked ill health when exposed to polluted water, air, and soil grew, as did the social understanding of who was most vulnerable to these hazards. From the nation’s founding, the cumulative impact of both urban exposure to pollutants and attempts to curb that exposure has been unequal along lines of race and ethnicity, class, and gender. Despite those consistent inequalities, the 21st-century American city looks little like the 18th-century American city, whether in terms of population size, geographical footprint, demographics, economic activity, or the policies that governed them: all of these factors influenced the very definitions of ideas such as pollution and the urban.
“Working-Class Environmentalism in America” traces working Americans’ efforts to protect the environment from antebellum times to the present. Antebellum topics include African American slaves’ environmental ethos; aesthetic nature appreciation by Lowell, Massachusetts “mill girls” working in New England’s first textile factories; and Boston’s 1840s fight for safe drinking water. Late-19th-century topics include working-class support for creating urban parks, workers’ early efforts to confront urban pollution and the “smoke nuisance,” and the exploration of conservationist ideas and policies by New England small farmers and fishermen in the late 1800s. In the early 20th century, working-class youth, including immigrants and African Americans, participated in the youth camping movement and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, while working-class adults and their families, enjoying new automobility and two-day weekends, discovered picnicking, car-camping, and sport hunting and fishing in newly created wilderness preserves. Workers also learned of toxic dangers to workplace safety and health from shocking stories of 1920s New Jersey “radium girls” and tetraethyl lead factory workers, and from 1930s Midwestern miners who went on strike over deadly silicosis. The 1930s United States rediscovered natural resource conservation when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed millions of working-class youth. Lumber workers advocated federal regulation of timber harvesting. Postwar America saw the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Steelworkers (USWA), Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and other labor unions lobbying for wilderness and wildlife preservation, workplace and community health, and fighting air and water pollution, while the United Farmworkers (UFW) fought reckless pesticide use, and dissidents within the United Mine Workers (UMW) sought to ban surface coal mining. Radical organizations explored minority community environmentalism and interracial cooperation on environmental reform. Following post-1970s nationwide conservative retrenchment, working-class activists and communities of color fought toxic wastes and explored environmental justice and environmental racism at places like Love Canal, New York and Warren County, North Carolina and formed the Blue-Green Alliance with environmentalists.